Inside the cafeteria at Lincoln Elementary School in Chinatown, students fidgeted in line, waiting to flip the contents of their lunch trays into three separate bins. The first bin, labeled “recycling,” was for the milk cartons. Next was the trash bin where the sporks and plastic wrappers go. And last: the compost bin, for the day’s discard of grapes, carrots, barbecued chicken and buns.
At Lincoln and nearly 50 other Oakland schools, the custodians, nutrition staff and faculty have banded together to use lunchtime as an opportunity to teach students how to compost. Their collaborative efforts are part of the Oakland Unified School District’s Green Gloves Program, a custodian-initiated effort to reduce the amount of waste schools produce during lunch.
Lana Cheung, Lincoln’s head custodian, first brought the composting idea to the school in 2010. During lunch this Tuesday, Cheung eyed the bins closely for those few moments when a bag of carrots or a hamburger bun was inadvertently tossed out with the sporks. “The fourth and fifth graders already know what to do,” she said. “The kindergartners need help. They waste so much.”
Students at Lincoln don’t only receive environmental lessons in the cafeteria. About once a year, Waste Management trucks bring the composted food scraps back to Lincoln, so they can be plowed back into the school’s edible gardens, a few plots of vegetables in the recess yard. “We want to take what comes out of a facility or a school like this and bring it all the way back into the school in a form that we can reintroduce back into the environment,” said Jessica Jones, Waste Management’s composting facility manager.
The Oakland Unified School District has been recycling paper, cardboard, plastic and other mixed-use material for more than a decade, according to Roland Broach, OUSD’s custodial services director. Nearly two dozen schools then added composting through cafeteria-sorting programs. But at schools without such a composting system, a few custodians noticed that tons of food scraps discarded by kindergarteners through fifth graders were being thrown every day into the garbage.
These custodians collaborated with school officials to change their disposal methods.
Glenview Elementary’s Jerry Fudge, for example, became the first janitor to receive the Green Gloves award in 2010 for his efforts to bring composting onto his school’s campus. From that award emerged the Green Gloves Program, which helps custodians and nutrition staff in each school. The program includes an annual symposium where OUSD custodians come together to discuss waste reduction methods, and a partnership with Waste Management, Alameda County’s disposal company, which provides signs and some of the bins used at schools to advertise the composting system. OUSD’s Sustainability Program Initiatives Manager Nancy Deming coordinates the program by helping custodians and others interested in school composting build the infrastructure needed to make it happen.
“In a lot of cases it is the custodian that is the champion that asks for the program,” Deming said.
To start the Green Gloves program at a school, Deming works with the campus’s custodial services, nutrition staff, the school site and Waste Management to teach school officials how to maintain the program.
“It’s been a wonderful collaboration between custodial services and nutrition services,” said Jennifer LeBarre, the nutrition services director for OUSD. “You have schools working on this, and then you have Waste Management supporting the schools.”
The program has also prompted district officials to consider reducing waste by altering what’s offered in the cafeterias, said LeBarre, who oversees the meal plans of the district’s pre-Kindergarten through 12th graders. This year, LeBarre said, the district is eliminating the Spork kit, a plastic-wrapped package that includes a Spork, a napkin, and a straw. “I mean, who uses a Spork?” LeBarre said. “It’s not something that represents what a utensil is. It mostly just goes right into the garbage.”
As a replacement for the kit, the district will be installing dispensers that offer a fork, a spoon, and a napkin. Once the straw is gone, LeBarre said, students are going to drink more milk, reducing the amount of milk thrown away at school.
“Education happens on the playground, it happens on the school garden, and it really happens in the cafeteria,” LeBarre said. “The cafeteria is the perfect place to talk to students about waste and food scrap recycling, composting.”
Although the Green Gloves Program is a school initiative, many of the lessons students learn in the cafeteria are making their way into their parent’s kitchens, LeBarre said. And that’s the goal, according to Deming.
“Hopefully the kids are coming home and saying, ‘Okay, folks, we need to start sorting our waste differently,’” Deming said. “‘We need to watch what’s in our refrigerator so that we’re not having it go to waste.’ I think that community ripple effect is an important piece.”